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In 1989, Sandra Bernhard, a young comedian who’d starred with Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” debuted her one-woman show “Without You I’m Nothing.” She sang, she told jokes and did impersonations of her favorite childhood divas that walked the line between reverence and parody. Twenty years later, at 53, she’s bringing the show back to New York’s Town Hall for one night only on June 10. Here, she talks about why Lady Gaga, Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman don’t hold a candle to Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner, her diminishing respect for the Kabbalah Centre and the effort to find humor in the age of Obama.
WWD: Tell me why you chose to revive the show. Was there a reason beyond the anniversary?
This story first appeared in the June 4, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Sandra Bernhard: People wanted to see it again. They always asked me if I’d do Stevie Nicks and women of rock ‘n’ roll. I have a tendency to write a new show every six months, but I thought “f— it.” Of course, I always add new things because it’s impossible for me to reenact it the way it was. So there’s some new stuff in there as well.
WWD: Like what?
S.B.: Well, there have been a lot of changes in the last 20 years. I have a 10-year-old daughter. So I talk about being a mother. Technology. Whatever’s in the moment.
WWD: When you arrived on the scene, black comedians talked primarily about race, Jewish comedians talked about their mothers, and almost no one besides you talked about celebrities. Now, everyone does it from Kathy Griffin–
S.B.: I never did it that way. If I called people out, I came from a different place. If I do a piece about Britney Spears, I set her life straight and she falls in love with me and I have to break it off. There’s always an interesting way of talking about pop culture without doing a didactic obvious critique of it. Because anybody can do that. And everybody does. So I keep creating things that are more theatrical. And that’s how I try to stay relevant.
WWD: How do you think things have changed for women in comedy over the last two decades? S.B.: I think there have been big changes for everybody. After “The King of Comedy,” I started doing Letterman and I got interviewed by Johnny Carson. That put me on the map. Everything was a step up. But now, nobody goes on Letterman and becomes an overnight sensation. You can do your thing on the Internet, you can do a reality show, but those things aren’t really reflective of somebody’s talents. I mean, look at Kathy Griffin. She was bumming around for a long time doing comedy but she was willing to go there and make a complete fool of herself. And that’s the appetite of the American public. They want their performers totally stripped down and vulnerable so they can go “look at that idiot.” I can’t say these are great times for young artists. There’s no longevity. Lady Gaga? I just don’t see any of the stuff lasting for very long.
WWD: Madonna and Cyndi Lauper both showed up at her show.
S.B.: They don’t want to fall behind. They go, “Uh oh, I better do this,” or, “Uh oh, I better do that” so that they can stay relevant. I enjoy listening to music where I don’t have to see the person. If I have to see the person to enjoy it, I’m not that interested.
WWD: Why is everyone in comedy today obsessed with poop?
S.B.: It’s shock value. People think they can recreate the Lenny Bruce aesthetic, but Lenny Bruce was really waking people up from their somnambulant state. Politically and culturally. So now it’s like we have people who think that’s it, [that it’s only about the scatalogical]. I don’t really understand it.
WWD: What do you think of someone like Sarah Silverman, who does a lot of jokes about what comes out the other end?
S.B.: She’s fine. She suits her generation. But I want to see something else. I want to see “August: Osage County” where it’s funny but it hits you right between the eyes. I’ve always been more drawn to Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde and Tina Turner and Nina Simone. You sat there and it was like you were watching theater because they were so committed.
WWD: Since the mid-Nineties, you’ve been involved with the Kabbalah. You seem way too ironic for a spiritual program that has more accessories to sell than the ground floor of Barneys.
S.B.: Well, when I started going that wasn’t what drew me in. I was raised Jewish, I loved the traditions and the mystical feelings of the holidays so it just seemed like something that young women hadn’t been allowed to study and this place opened it up. I went in 1995 before there was any hoopla and I got the best out of it. Then the wheels started to fall off. I’m not nearly as involved with that place as I was. Unfortunately, money corrupts everything, even spirituality. And it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of glamour and fame.
WWD: Wasn’t the bottled water the biggest indication something was amiss?
S.B.: Originally, it made sense because when you expose water to different energies it does effect the molecular qualities of the water. And they actually used to have big bottles of water in the shul when they did Torah readings and stuff. But when they started selling it, it seemed very gimmicky to me as I’m sure it did to most people.
WWD: Does it get harder to be bitchy as you get older and become more spiritual?
S.B.: You definitely have to learn to strike a balance in how you critique people. Except when it comes to George Bush and Sarah Palin. Because people’s lives were in their hands. So I have no compunction about calling them out. But if it’s just some performer who I don’t think is up to snuff, there’s a way of having fun with it without destroying their entire game.
WWD: It does seem that comedians are having a tough time figuring out what to do with Obama.
S.B.: This is how I feel about it: If I have to trade 20 minutes of material for a world of peace, I’ll be glad to sacrifice it. After eight years of the Bush administration, I’d be thrilled never to have to mention any of those people’s names again. When comedians have run out of material on that level, it’s a healthy sign.